Space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off Friday afternoon on its final mission before becoming a museum exhibit out in California.
President Obama is expected to be there, becoming only the third sitting president to view a human spaceflight launch. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) will also attend — she was shot in the head earlier this year, but her doctors have OK'd her trip to see her astronaut husband, Commander Mark Kelly, launch into space.
The shuttle's blastoff will also be watched by more than the usual number of physicists. That's because Endeavour will be carrying up a $2 billion particle physics detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS.
The AMS will be mounted onto the International Space Station, where, for a decade, it will collect cosmic rays — charged particles that zoom through space.
The AMS was designed to search for primordial antimatter created during the Big Bang, and the mysterious dark matter that makes up much of our universe.
The device is the size of a bus and looks a lot like an old-fashioned satellite, sort of like Sputnik, says physicist Drew Baden of the University of Maryland, who got to see it as it was being assembled in a clean room at the CERN physics lab in Europe.
"It was just beautiful," Baden says. "I thought it was beautiful, just thinking about the engineering that went into it and the amount of time it took, and the planning. Wow! That human beings could accomplish this kind of thing is really impressive."
'Real Science On The Space Station"
One human being in particular is behind this project: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been pushing to make it happen for more than 16 years.
After NASA agreed to launch this detector, Ting went out and raised money to build it with the help of hundreds of researchers in more than a dozen countries.
Ting did not give up even in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, when NASA officials said that things had changed and they had to cancel this flight. And in the end, NASA reinstated the flight.
Ting said no one knows what this instrument might discover.
"I mean, if you find what you predicted, it's not interesting," he said. "The interesting thing is to destroy the current idea, to find something new."
But some physicists aren't expecting the AMS to produce any breakthroughs.
"I just think that this experiment was a tremendous expenditure of money that wasn't justified," says Gregory Tarle, a physics professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He says the AMS was built without first getting the widespread support that big projects normally receive from the physics community.
And while the AMS was originally planned to search for primordial antimatter, Tarle says recent research shows that there's no way it will find any.
"The justification for doing this kind of physics has pretty much evaporated," says Tarle, who adds that while the AMS will also look for evidence of dark matter, its results won't be definitive.
Asked specifically about Tarle's criticisms at a NASA media briefing, Ting responded that he had gone to school at the University of Michigan and that it used to have a good football team, but recently the team had gone to pot. "Last year they have changed their coach. I have no other answers," Ting said, drawing laughter from those attending the conference.
Despite the controversy, the AMS will do solid, state-of-the-art science, says Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist at Boston University.
"It will finally be true that there will be real science on the space station, something that has never been true before — it's been like high school experiments and a bunch of silliness," Glashow says.
Glashow notes that Ting got the Nobel after making a "miraculous" discovery back in 1974, early in his career. "And I have every reason to believe that he's going to make another one now toward the end of his career," Glashow says. "I'm thrilled for him."
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Space Shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to blast off this afternoon on its final mission. President Obama will be there for the launch. So will Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In January, she survived an attack where she was shot in the head, but has recovered enough to watch her astronaut husband go into space.
The launch will also be watched by physicists. That's because Endeavour will be carrying up an expensive and controversial physics experiment. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that it will look for strange forms of matter.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The instrument is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS. A few years ago, physicist Drew Baden of the University of Maryland got to see it as it was being assembled. He says it was the size of a bus and looked a bit like the old Sputnik satellite.
Professor DREW BADEN (Physicist, University of Maryland): It's got sort of a cylindrical geometry. And it's got legs. And it's all shiny and, you know, silvery.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Its high-tech innards are a big magnet and detectors to measure cosmic rays. These are charged particles that zoom through space. The AMS will sift through them, looking for strange things like primordial antimatter created during the Big Bang, and the mysterious dark matter thought to make up much of our universe.
To Baden, the instrument was gorgeous.
Prof. BADEN: It was just beautiful, beautiful. I thought it was beautiful. Just thinking about the engineering that went into it and the amount of time it took and the planning - wow. I mean, that human beings could accomplish this kind of thing is really impressive.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One human being in particular was a Nobel Prize winning physicist named Sam Ting, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For more than 16 years, he's been the driving force behind this project, leading hundreds of researchers in more than a dozen countries.
Ting never gave up, not even in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when NASA officials went back on their promise to take the AMS up into space. Ting lobbied relentlessly until the mission got reinstated. At a press conference yesterday, Ting said no one knows what the AMS might discover.
Dr. SAM TING (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): To a scientist the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown, to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor have the tool to discover.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some physicists are not expecting any breakthroughs.
Professor GREGORY TARLE (Physics, University of Michigan): I just think that this experiment was a tremendous expenditure of money that wasn't justified.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gregory Tarle is a physics professor at the University of Michigan. He says the AMS cost an estimated $2 billion, but went forward without first getting widespread support from the physics community. He says its original purpose was to find primordial anti-matter, but more recent research shows there's no way it will find any.
Prof. TARLE: The justification for doing this kind of physics has pretty much evaporated.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And while it will look for evidence of dark matter, Tarle says, its results won't be conclusive.
Despite the controversy, physicists say they are interested in seeing what the AMS will do. Sheldon Glashow is a Nobel Prize winning physicist at Boston University. He says it's a powerful instrument.
Dr. SHELDON GLASHOW (Physicist, Boston University): Let's put it up into the sky. I think it would be absolutely catastrophically stupid to not put it up in the sky. It will finally be true that there will be real science on the space station, something that has never been true before - it's been like high school experiments and a bunch of silliness.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After Endeavour gets to the space station, astronauts will use robotic arms to attach the AMS to the orbiting lab, where it will stay for a decade or more, taking in the cosmic rays.
Nell Greenfieldboyce,�NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.